For fans of Woody Allen’s early comedies, the post-Annie Hall oeuvre can seem like treacherous ground. His work often displays dazzling artistic invention and witty dialogue but rarely has he reached the same comedic heights as the first few films of his career. For a time it seemed like he simply didn’t want to make people laugh anymore. We were told as much in 1980’s poorly received Stardust Memories, a visually memorable but conceptually confused film that feels today like an exorcism of those comedic demons. He wanted to be a serious director like his heroes Bergman and Fellini, and that ambition has resulted in a varied filmography of all manner of styles and themes.
But sometimes we just want to laugh. And Woody Allen can make me laugh like almost no one else. He has made several attempts to return to comedy with mixed results. 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery reformed the team behind Annie Hall, with writing collaborator Marshall Brickman and actress Diane Keaton. The film is a low-key detective story that takes familiar Allen-esque detours into infidelity with subplots involving Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston pairing up with the familiar main couple; the rest of the story follows a mystery with some inventive twists and an ending that offers a visually creative homage to Hitchcock. It’s a mildly entertaining film I found underwhelming upon first viewing, but there are some interesting insights in the characterizations within these relationships and the way they intertwine with the main plot. It’s just not that funny. Then came 2000’s Small Time Crooks, which for me is one of the most disappointing films he’s ever made. We will discuss the problems of that film in future post, but needless to say it takes a promising introduction and turns it into a ponderously unfunny narrative. Things get even more dire from there, with 2002’s The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion being the worst of the bunch.
Fortunately, for fans of the funny Woody Allen, we have 1978’s hilariously wacky Interiors. Here was a film where he decided to devote himself completely to comedic gifts. Witty banter? A wacky trio of sisters with fragile psyches trade zingers while their parents’ marriage collapses. Physical comedy? See not one but two zany suicide attempts involving duct tape on the doors and the oven turned up high. How about some of those old Woody Allen stand up routines that bulked up many of the gags in Annie Hall? Well, Interiors finally gives us a cinematic recreation of his famous moose bit.
(No, that’s actually not true, but this joke has gone on far enough anyway).
To be serious: Interiors is not a funny film. It’s relentlessly dour. Long scenes of stark dialogue. Suicide attempts. Maureen Stapleton dancing. We can imagine how bitterly it might have been received by some fans after Allen’s series of comedic masterpieces. And we don’t have to imagine his response to that criticism, which was given full form in Stardust Memories two years later. It seems pretentious. But it’s not: there are actually a lot of interesting ideas at work.
The plot centers around the fractured family of three sisters and their recently separated parents. Most of the characters can be defined by the depths of their miseries. But there are contexts to the depictions of depression that give some insightful illumination to their sources. The connecting theme is creativity, the struggle for artistic expression. Two sisters offer the clearest dynamic: Joey is tortured by her lack of artistic talent to match her ambition at the potential cost of a stable relationship with her supportive boyfriend; Renata, the successful poet, is suffering with doubts over the merits of her work while her alcoholic husband wallows in insecurities about his own failed career as a novelist. The third sister is an actress in California caught up in the familiar trappings of that life.
The family is haunted by the matron of the whole clan. Geraldine Page delivers the strongest performance in what could have been an overbearing, unlikable character but instead emerges as a portrait of quiet tragedy. She is obsessed with order and decoration, constantly arranging vases and offering endless criticisms of her daughters’ homes and lives. But she engenders a certain sympathy, as her compulsions clearly stem from her own unconquered demons. In fact, it seems that she suffers from the same creative desires that haunt her daughters. She acts out by attempting to control others, which has clearly taken its toll on the family. Her husband has certainly had enough – he requests a separation and soon emerges with another woman, the free spirited Pearl. Her character serves as a clear contrast in which a relatively happy, contented soul is introduced into this dour family circle at a dinner party with predictable results. In one key scene, Pearl accidentally knocks over a vase while dancing, which enrages Joey. Here we see the real connection between mother and daughter, both frustrated by unfulfilled creative desires.
All of this builds to a darkly appropriate climax that expands on this theme. Joey attempts a reconciliation with her mother, who wanders off mid conversation. Where does she go? To the ocean to drown herself. Joey’s failed attempt to save her is actually a masterful piece of metaphor: intercut with scenes of the rest of the family sleeping, the tortured daughter nearly follows her mother into the abyss. At the funeral, Joey is able to write a few lines in memory of her mother. It’s not a happy ending – nor should it be – but it offers some semblance of hope, which in this film is quite a miracle.
The problem is that the story is told so broadly that there is little room for shading or depth of characterization. “I’m a frustrated poet,” says Renata; “I drink too much and I can’t write,” says her husband. It’s as if these characters have already diagnosed their own problems and are left to simply flail about in their depressions over the course of the plot. We should have seen them at work, and perhaps have been allowed to come to these realizations ourselves through the action. For all the insights that this film has into the problems of an artistic life, it does not portray them in a dramatically engaging way. Instead, what we have is more of a soap opera, in which the problems are mulled over in scene after scene of staged dialogue.
What the film really needs is the addition of another character. What about a balding, bespectacled neurotic with a penchant for witty dialogue and young girlfriends? He could have made his appearance midway through the film after a failed hunting trip. Perhaps, and I’m just musing here, he could arrive with a moose in tow, and the moose itself could make an appearance at the dinner party, sipping champagne and mingling with the guests. Wait – the moose bit! Here would have been the perfect way to include the famous Woody Allen routine into this film. I swear that was only a coincide of inspiration, and I was not even thinking about that routine when I was writing that suggestion.
To conclude: Interiors is a dark film with some interesting insights into the struggle for artistic expression. The performances are adequate but hampered by a script that fails to portray these ideas with real dramatic ingenuity. Most importantly, Woody Allen himself should have played a supporting role, allowing for the opportunity to incorporate his famous moose routine into film.
And now, Woody Allen’s moose bit: